Looming U.S. exit to complicate Iraqi training
BESMAYA TRAINING CENTER, Iraq — In many ways, this collection of dusty ranges and well-tended barracks south of Baghdad represents the culmination of the U.S. military’s years-long effort to train the Iraqi army.
Roughly 75 percent of Iraqi units have been through training here, much of which is now led by a cadre of 800 Iraqi soldiers. Specialized instruction includes an M1A1 tank course and a bomb disposal school.
As the U.S. military contemplates its exit from Iraq, Baghdad-based officers involved in the training effort say the Iraqis are nearly ready to take over the $24 million a year program in Besmaya and others like it.
The Iraqis, however, disagree.
“If the Americans leave, the training here will fall apart or become fake training,” said Iraqi Army Col. Abbas Fadhil Sahib, the commander at Besmaya. “We will have to put a sign on the gate that says, ‘We are very sorry to accept you for training.’ ”
For Abbas, an outspoken officer who has commanded here since the center opened in 2006, the problems boil down to a reluctance by “old-style minds” at higher echelons of the Iraqi military to embrace the American-style training, which focuses on realism and repetition as opposed to the lecture-heavy model traditionally conducted in Iraq.
Even persuading the Iraqi Ministry of Defense to release ammunition to units coming to train at Besmaya has been a continual problem requiring U.S. intervention, Iraqi and U.S. officers say.
“To some of their hierarchy, training is not seen as being as important as maintaining a stockpile,” said U.S. Army Col. Hardee Green, chief of army training for the U.S. advisory command in Baghdad. “We’ll call the MOD and get them to release the ammunition, but I understand Abbas’ concern. That’s frustrating for him.”
Beyond the ingrained attitudes of officers who came of age during a decade of sanctions that limited Iraq’s ability to repair or replace its military hardware, questions remain about what kind of training the new Iraqi army can afford once the Americans stop paying the bills.
A single one of the computer-operated pop-up targets at Besmaya’s small arms ranges, which are maintained by a group of 60 U.S. contractors, costs about $30,000.
“Besmaya has the potential to be the centerpiece of Iraqi ground training,” said Lt. Col. Douglas Boltuc, who leads the U.S. military’s 21-person advisory team at the center. “But Iraqis have to come to an understanding of what they’re going to invest in their national defense.”
What Iraqi officers describe as a total lack of logistical support from their own government — and a lack of high-level interest — has fed the view that, without continued U.S. help, the training will collapse. It has also opened a gulf between the views of the American advisers, who believe the Iraqis are nearly self-sufficient, and the Iraqis themselves, who say they’re not even close.
U.S. Army Capt. Robin Wright, one of two American advisers at Besmaya’s bomb disposal school, said that if he and his partner left today, “They’d be fine.”
But Iraqi Lt. Col. Mwafaq Nasser, the school’s deputy commander, has a different take.
“It’s only two guys, but they give us huge support,” he said. “When they leave, we’re afraid we won’t get any support from the MOD. When we ask the MOD for anything now, they don’t help us.”
With nearly two years remaining until the U.S. is scheduled to leave Iraq completely, senior American military advisers play down those concerns. The notoriously bad Iraqi logistical system has only recently become a focus, they say, and the fact that Iraqi commanders are taking entire units out of sector to send them to training shows that the Iraqis have bought into the concept.
Besides, American officials say, the goal is not to leave behind a replica of American military training but a sustainable model that works for Iraq.
“We’re aiming for ‘Iraqi-good-enough,’ ” Green said. “I think we’re pretty close.”
For Abbas, who claims to have been the first officer to join the new Iraqi army following the U.S. invasion, the future also remains uncertain.
Repeatedly passed over for promotion, Abbas produced a sheaf of orders, one directly from the minister of defense, relieving him of his command in Besmaya. The orders were rescinded in November, he said, after what he described as “something like an act of God.”
But while American advisers say Abbas deserves much of the credit for the successes at Besmaya, he has fallen far from the graces of his own superiors, reflecting widespread division within the Iraqi military.
“He has a lot of enemies,” said Abbas’ logistics officer, Lt. Col. Harith Hammoudi. “He tries to fix hard problems so the higher people began to, let us say, hate him.”
Abbas himself, who blames his estrangement on his refusal to pay bribes, puts it more bluntly.
“This stupid cow government breaks everything,” he said.